29 March, 2021 | Posted by Dr. Susan Giblin

Embracing the Scientific Difference Between Men and Women in Sports

K.V. Switzer was attacked two miles into the Boston marathon.

It was 1967 when steward Jock Semple aggressively grabbed and pushed contestant 261 off the road. Semple was bigger and stronger than the runner but couldn't get them off the course. K.V. Switzer, also known as Katherine Switzer, relied on her boyfriend to keep going.

Her boyfriend physically put himself between the steward and his girlfriend. Nobody else helped because back then it was illegal for women to run in the Boston marathon. Watching a man aggressively grab and push a woman off the path wasn't anything abnormal.

Switzer registered under "K.V." rather than Katherine to circumvent the rules.

She abbreviated her first name to officially register for the race and in turn become the first woman ever to officially run the Boston marathon.

KV Switzer in 1967.Jock Semple in the midst of attacking Katherine Switzer during the 1967 Boston Marathon.

Her success in completing the race didn't immediately lead to change but it was a seminal moment. Five years after Switzer did it first, the rules were changed and women were allowed to officially enter the race.

It's easy to pretend that stone-age mindsets only existed in the stone age. But that's not reality.

There are women alive today who were born at a time when experts claimed distance running was damaging for women’s health and femininity.

Scientists at the time went as far as to suggest that a woman’s uterus might fall out should she run too far.

Obviously, there was no real science behind this. Any attempt to justify the argument has long since been debunked. Where did it come from in the first place? Switzer has an idea:

“It happened because on a basic level, running empowers women and raises their self-esteem while promoting physical fitness easily and inexpensively.”

“We [have since] learned that women are not deficient in endurance and stamina, and that running requires no fancy facilities or equipment. Women’s marathoning has created a global legacy.”

Switzer continued running after 1967. She then organized races across the world that specifically promoted participation for women.

In 2007, more women ran in road races in America than men according to Runner's World Magazine.

We've reached the point where as many women run long distance as men. Yet we're still waiting on our first case of a falling uterus.

The 40 years between 1967 and 2007 is a long time for an individual human being. It's nothing in the larger lifespan of society. Such a dramatic change in participation for women in sport over such a short period suggests that we can still do so much more over the next 40 years. Or even the next four.

If women's sports continue to grow exponentially, the next step is to overcome new obstacles. We've largely overcome the obstacles to participation, now we need to overcome the obstacles to peak performance.

While we know enough not to fear a woman's uterus anymore, the foundation of sports science research that women's exercise is built on is still too small.

Men's bodies and women's bodies are different. Besides the obvious structural differences, they function differently both in resting and when performing athletically. We understand very little about the best practices for women in terms of training preparation, active training and post-training recovery.

The differences between men and women break down into three distinct categories:

  • Hormonal

Steroid hormones drive adaptation in terms of muscle growth and recovery following training.  The level and proportion of the main steroid hormones (testosterone and oestrogen circulating in female and male bodies) is fundamentally different. Additionally, female athletes experience constant cyclical fluctuations in hormones during their menstrual cycle that influence training and recovery.

  • Biomechanical

The most notable biomechanical difference between female and male bodies is the shape of the pelvis. The male pelvis is narrower and deeper. The female pelvis is broader and shallower. The pelvis shape has a knock-on effect on lower-limb biomechanics that influences injury risk, particularly the risk of knee injuries when jumping and landing.

  • Physiological 

Women typically have a higher percentage of body fat than men. A healthy range of body fat for a woman is 20-25%, whereas a healthy range of body fat for men is 10-15%. This difference reflects the greater need to protect internal reproductive organs in women's bodies. It has clear implications for nutritional and antrhopometric considerations for female athletes when training. In addition to body fat, women have approximately 12% less haemoglobin than men, resulting in different oxygen carrying capacity for each gender. 

Acknowledging the differences between men and women doesn’t mean downplaying one side’s performance or justifying the exclusion of women from sports. Acknowledging the differences allows us to emphasize the importance of greater research and investment into sports science for women.

The progress we've seen in women's participation only serves as reason for optimism as we seek progress in women's performance management.

Expecting women to evolve and perform at the same rate as their male counterparts without the same support structures is unrealistic. We can't just throw women a ball, walk away then come back and ask why they didn't become Galacticos.

Some male professional athletes are born superstars. Most are born with the potential to be superstars but require extensive development to get anywhere close to realizing that potential.

From a scientific perspective, women are still frequently excluded from clinical sports science research.

Without a foundation of science to support the development of optimal female performance, women are still disadvantaged.

It's not like men collectively have always played sports at the same level. Rugby in the 1970s looks nothing like what it does today. Small men with very little muscle chased the ball around the field together like toddlers playing soccer back then. You wouldn't have seen anyone the size of Tadhg Furlong and you definitely wouldn't have seen anyone the size of Tadhg Furlong who moved the way Tadhg Furlong does.

Even the tactics of the sport have dramatically changed. Rather than the organised, structured intensity of strategic play, you will see a frantic game that lacks direction. Gameplans didn't exist. Teams didn't spend the full week practicing together, instead they had actual jobs to go to.

The evolution of professional rugby has been built on a strong foundation of sports science, strength and conditioning knowledge and performance analysis that has created a clear roadmap for development and success.

Unfortunately, girls and women in sport simply do not have that foundation of support to progress at the same rate.

It's not as egregious as Switzer being manhandled off the race track but women today are still navigating their way through uncharted territory. They're still having to hold their hands out in front of them and take shorter steps to feel out the right path.

Since men have institutionalised sports, the structures offer them clear and obvious paths of progression to follow. Without that institutionalisation for women, progress will always be slower.

Some sports have been considered more stereotypically female (e.g: soccer). We've seen those sports receiving funding and develop in line with that funding. The US Women's National Team in soccer are still fighting for more support and have clearly thrived with the support they've already been given. They have elevated their statuses inside and outside of soccer by repeatedly winning FIFA World Cup titles.

Other sports have been considered more stereotypically male (e.g: combat sports) and have been largely underserved. The women in those sports have been forced to become trailblazers.

For example, UFC President Dana White said as recently as 2011 that women would “never” fight in the UFC. Women are now prominent in the world of Mixed Martial Arts and there are multiple women's weight divisions in the UFC. Since the first UFC fight between two women in 2013, Amanda Nunes, Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and Miesha Tate have become household names in the sport.

Nunes is largely regarded as one of the best fighters in the sport regardless of gender.

One day, someone from the next generation will come along to push past the standard that Nunes has set.

That's what Nunes did to Rousey.

Furthering academic research and building expert training regimes will hasten this process. The next wave of girls will have clear pathways to elite performance. They'll be able to focus on just achieving their potential rather than having to trial and error their way to the right path.

There won’t be a literal official pushing them off the path now like there was in 1967 and there won’t be a standard made unachievable by institutionalized sexism.

Portobello Institute's BSc Sports Science and Performance Analysis and MSc Sports Performance Analysis degrees are designed to develop the next generation of performance analysts and sports scientists. You can be part of this next step towards creating equality in sports science.

For more information on any of our sports courses, you can contact course advisor Johanna Shaw at jo.shaw@portobelloinstitute.com or call 01-892-0024.


This is the second article in Dr. Susan Giblin's The Female Athlete series. You can read the first article here.